Language and the Social Contract

Critiquing the social contract today might seem like beating a dead horse, and I wish I could agree. I agree that the social contract is much less central to contemporary political theory than most would think, but people still build their views around this demonstrably erroneous assumption. For my purposes, it will suffice to summarize what the social contract is, give several reasons for why it is false, and then get to my central point: the arguments made by Ferdinand de Saussure in his courses on linguistics (Saussure, 1916/1959) regarding the arbitrariness, immutability, and mutability of language are fatal to social contract theory. So this essay will, along with the social contract, explore Semiology.

My aim is not to critique any specific philosopher, and the varied ways people have employed social contract theories is something I will not discuss here. All I mean by the social contract is the basic idea that society is founded by the mutual agreement of people in a state of nature. Its primary concern is whether a given regime is legitimate and worthy of loyalty (D’Agostino 1996, p. 23). They say the state has legitimacy because everyone has already consented to obey and be governed by it. Social contract theories are malicious: they try to present “as ‘voluntary’ something which is self-evidently deeply non-voluntary” (Geuss, 2001, p. 29). And by the state of nature, I mean that fictional time when people supposedly lived without any groups, when they roamed the earth as autonomous, free individuals unrestrained by the laws and customs of societies (Rousseau, 1762/1997).

Why fictional? We can analyze this both empirically and logically. Empirically, we do not ever observe such a time. Groups are as natural to humans as to other animals. Aristotle’s claim that “man is by nature a political animal” (Aristotle, Politics, 1253a) has been confirmed by anthropologists and sociologists at least since the 19th century (Durkheim, 1893).

Man is to be regarded as arising out of group protection and group tuition: but for the former he would not live, but for the latter he would not acquire the traits of humanity. (Jouvenel, 1963, p. 45)

And logically, a contract is impossible without already existing shared standards. How could these solitary individuals imagine the advantages group solidarity would bring to them if group solidarity was alien to them?

‘Social contract’ theories are views of childless men who must have forgotten their own childhood. Society is not founded like a club. One may ask how the hardy, roving adults pictured could imagine the advantages of the solidarity to be, had they not enjoyed the benefits of a solidarity in being throughout their growing period; or how they could feel bound by the mere exchange of promises, if the notion of obligation had not been built up within them by group existence? (Jouvenel, 1963, p. 45)

Moreover, how can any exchange be called a contract if there are no already mutually acknowledged standards for determining what makes an exchange binding? MacIntyre wrote the following about the Hobbesian contract, but it applies perfectly to what we’ve been discussing here:

The Hobbesian contract is the foundation of social life in the sense that prior to the contract there are no shared rules or standards; indeed, the story of the contract functions as some kind of explanation of how men came to share social norms. But any exchange of words, written or spoken, between men which it would be appropriate to characterize as a contract or agreement or making of promises can only be so characterized in virtue of there already existing some acknowledged and shared rule according to which the use of the form of words in question is understood by both parties to be a binding form of words. Apart from such an already acknowledged and accepted convention, there could be nothing which could be correctly called a contract, agreement, or promise. There could perhaps be expressions of intention; but in a Hobbesian state of nature there would be every reason to suspect that these were designed to mislead. The only available standards for interpreting the utterances of others would prevent any conception of agreement. Thus Hobbes makes two incompatible demands of the original contract: he wishes it to be the foundation of all shared and common standards and rules; but he also wishes it to be a contract, and for it to be a contract, there must already exist shared and common standards of the kind which he specifies cannot exist prior to the contract. The conception of an original contract is therefore ruined by internal self-contradiction and cannot be used even to frame a metaphor of a coherent kind. (MacIntyre, 1966/2017, pp. 136-7)

We can go even further and ask: How can any exchange of words be understood without a shared language? And isn’t a shared language always something imposed? This is where we get to Semiology. Shortly after Saussure’s death, two of his colleagues, Bally and Sechehaye, compiled notes from courses at the University of Geneva and manuscript notes by Saussure. From these, they constructed the Cours de linguistique générale, first published in 1916 (Joseph, 2017). Because of this, what Saussure himself believed is often debatable, but that doesn’t matter. What matters are the central arguments about language made in the book.

First, words are arbitrary signs, i.e., legisigns in C. S. Peirce’s terms. There is no natural or logical reason why the sound-pattern “fire” signifies the idea of fire. The existence of different languages and the evolution of words are sufficient proof of this. Saussure discusses the objection that onomatopoetic words are exceptions to this rule and concludes that they are not (Saussure, 1916/1959, p. 69). Onomatopoetic words are still arbitrary because even if you hear the crack of a whip when you hear the French word fouet, that connection is still a matter of interpretation. “For someone who hears the sound, the mimetic link is real, despite the French word’s etymological derivation from Latin fagus ‘beech’ (strips of beech wood having been used as whips)”. But the Saussurean principle of arbitrariness still holds: “fouet and whip are no more “true” for those who hear the crack of a whip in the word than for those of us who do not hear it” (Joseph, 2017).

To use a different example, we can look at the bouba/kiki effect (Ramachandran & Hubbard, 2001). Wolfgang Köhler showed in 1929 that there is some non-arbitrary connection between sound patterns and geometric shapes (Köhler, 1929). The experiment later done by Ramachandran & Hubbard showed that when looking at the following shapes, people were almost unanimous (95-98%) in choosing which one is “bouba” and which “kiki”.

This effect holds in children younger than three years old (Maurer et al., 2006). But even this is no argument against Saussure’s thesis. The connection is always accidental, not essential. Nothing in principle prevents us from calling the rounded shape kiki and the pointy shape bouba, and the remaining 5-2% of people in the experiment did just that. The English word blade, for example, shows that the supposed roundness of the sound pattern doesn’t always correspond to the roundness of the signified object.

But what does this have to do with the social contract? If language is arbitrary, then it cannot be contractual. The arbitrariness of words determines both the mutability and immutability of language. Words are arbitrary—hence they evolve, making language mutable. But words evolve not because any community or individual chooses to change them. Just as randomness doesn’t imply the existence of free will, so mutability of language doesn’t imply free choice on part of the linguistic community. Language doesn’t evolve based on choice because to deliberately change words one would need rational reasons for preferring the new words to the old ones, and there are no such reasons.

Resistance to deliberate change makes language immutable, along with its complexity and collective inertia. Everywhere language appears as an inheritance. It is imposed as a system to be accepted, not as something to change at will.

No individual, even if he willed it, could modify in any way at all the choice that has been made; and what is more, the community itself cannot control so much as a single word; it is bound to the existing language. No longer can language be identified with a contract pure and simple, and it is precisely form this viewpoint that the linguistic sign is a particularly interesting object of study; for language furnishes the best proof that a law accepted by a community is a thing that is tolerated and not a rule to which all freely consent. (Saussure, 1916/1959, p. 71)

We’ve seen that the social contract suffers from several logical and empirical issues: the absence of any historical period akin to Rousseau’s, Locke’s or Hobbes’ state of nature; the incoherence of saying that the foundation of all shared standards is a contract; the assumption that promise-making somehow exists as a social practice before society does; and at last we’ve seen the weaker but more novel point that language, the prerequisite of any conceivable contract, is non-voluntary. Thus social contract theory breaks down even before we get to the empirical evidence against it.

  • Aristotle. Politics.
  • D’Agostino, F. (1996). Free public reason: Making it up as we go. Oxford University Press.
  • Durkheim, E. (1893). De la division du travail social: Étude sur l’organisation des sociétés supérieures. Paris : Alcan.
  • Geuss, R. (2001). History and Illusion in Politics. Cambridge University Press.
  • Joseph, J. E. (2017). Ferdinand de Saussure. In J. E. Joseph, Oxford Research Encyclopedia of Linguistics. Oxford University Press.
  • Jouvenel, B. de. (1963). The Pure Theory of Politics. Cambridge University Press.
  • Köhler, W. (1929). Gestalt psychology. New York : H. Liveright.
  • MacIntyre, A. (2017). A Short History of Ethics: A History of Moral Philosophy from the Homeric Age to the Twentieth Century, Second Edition. University of Notre Dame Press. (Original work published 1966)
  • Maurer, D., Pathman, T., & Mondloch, C. J. (2006). The shape of boubas: Sound-shape correspondences in toddlers and adults. Developmental Science, 9(3), 316–322.
  • Ramachandran, V. S., & Hubbard, E. M. (2001). Synaesthesia—A window into perception, thought and language. Journal of Consciousness Studies, 8(12), 3–34.
  • Rousseau, J.-J. (1997). Rousseau: “The Social Contract” and Other Later Political Writings. Cambridge University Press. (Original work published 1762)
  • Saussure, F. de, (1959). Course in General Linguistics. Philosophical Library. (Original work published 1916)

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